Biophilia and the Promotion of Pro-Environmental Behaviors

The biophilia hypothesis suggests that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life.  In his seminal book, Biophilia (1984) Edward O. Wilson introduced and popularized the hypothesis saying that we, as humans, all possess “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.”

This hypothesis has become a movement, of sorts, especially within the field of urban design and the creation of biophilic cities with a growing network of cities classified as biophilic. See   For example: this downtown park in Shanghai is attempting to create an ecosytem in the center city.


There are many reasons that creating environments that are biophilic will influence people’s desire to be more environmental.  Psychologists have been heavily involved in developing ways to change people’s behaviors to be more pro-environmental.  These strategies include:

  1. Antecedent Strategies: Strategies that stop or encourage pro-environmental behavior before it happens.
    1. Prompts: Approach and Avoidance Prompts help encourage or discourage environmental behavior, such as this prompt to turn off the lights when exiting the classroom:
  2. Technological Strategies: Strategies that use technological advances to make our choices more environmental and not cost-prohibitive.  For example: packaging that reduces waste without us even realizing we are being more environmental is a great way to work toward a healthier environment! Photo:
  3. Fun Strategies: Making pro-environmental choices fun can encourage them to happen!     
    1. garbage bin
    2.   stairs
    3. bottles


Cognitive Mapping – Wayfinding through our World

Kevin Lynch, in his seminal book, The Image of the City (1960), reported that people could mentally map and understand their environments in very predictable ways.  He found that mental maps (maps sketched by a average person from memory) had five common elements:

  • paths, streets, sidewalks, trails, and other channels in which people travel;
  • edges, perceived boundaries such as walls, buildings, and shorelines;
  • districts, relatively large sections of the city distinguished by some identity or character;
  • nodes, focal points or intersections;
  • landmarks, readily identifiable objects which serve as external reference points.



Lynch also coined the term “wayfinding” to be the psychological way we discover how to make our way through environments.  Wayfinding can be promoted by characteristics of the environment including:

  1. Visual Access: being able to visually see your destination makes it easier to wayfind to that location.
    1. For example: this hotel on the Walt Disney World property has great visual access via the large dolphin on the top of the hotel providing visual access from multiple places in the Disney Theme Parks.
  2. Degree of Differentiation: having unique qualities throughout the environment that distinguish one street or building from another makes it easier to wayfind through that environment.
    1. For example:  this neighborhood has hardly any differentiation from one house or street to the next which would impinge on wayfinding to a friend’s house who lives here.
  3. Legibility: being able to make sense of the environment and “read” the travel routes that you would go to get to your destination makes it easier to wayfind to that location.
    1. For example: this map of Rome shows that this environment is so complex that it hinders wayfinding because the legibility of the environment is very low.

Why do we prefer one environment over another? The case of the Country Mouse and the City Mouse

A familiar children’s story told by many authors including Walt Disney, titled “Country Mouse, City Mouse” shows that the main characters in the story have different prefences for the type of environment they would like to live in.  The City Mouse, of course, preferring the hustle and bustle of the city while the Country Mouse preferring a much simpler and quieter life.  This tale illustrates a common concept of Environmental Psychology called environmental preference.  Environmental Psychology research shows that we prefer to live in places that are a) at an optimal level of stimulation and arousal for us, b) provide us both prospect and refuge, and c) allow us to make sense of the environment while simultaneously engaging us.

Optimal Arousal in Environmental Preference

Each of us has a different perspective on how much stimulation we prefer: some of us are thrill seekers who love roller coasters and other high speed adventures, who others are more content with slower paced environments.  Finding a place where we live, work, and play that provides us the “just-right” amount of stimulation will likely be an environment that we prefer.  Oftentimes these environments provide us “affordances” that meet our needs, whether they be a “need for speed” or not!

Which classroom environment seems more of a good fit for your preferred level of stimluation?



Prospect-Refuge Theory (Nassar & Fisher, 1992)

Another theory of Environmental Psychology tells us that we prefer environments that have a good deal of both prospect (the ability to see and take in our surroundings) and refuge (places to hide if there is danger).  Evolutionary Psychologists believe that we developed this preference as a mechanism for protection from harm in our home environments — where we can see danger coming from afar and hide from it if necessary.


For example, this environment has great prospect over the lawn and some nice refuge from the elements under the protective awning above.

Kaplans’ Model of Environmental Preference

Rachel and Stephen Kaplan (1982) formed a model to describe how environmental preference is based on a good balance between our ability to make sense of the environment and find our way through it and our engagement with that same environment.  We prefer environments that make good sense to us, that are legible and coherent – but not to the extreme or else they become boring.  The other side of that coin is that we also prefer environments that involve and engage us – want to encourage us to explore by providing good complexity and some mystery – but again, not to the extreme or else they can become scary or overwhelming.

For example: this environment has a path that helps us understand how we would travel through the environment because it is legible.  However, there is also a good bit of complexity with the different foliage colors and textures adding engagement and mystery.  This environment seems to have a good balance of both “making sense” and “involvement” that would lead us to prefer this place.

Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1982). Humanscape: Environments for People. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ulrich’s Books.